I am staying in this New Year’s as I leave for the Caribbean tomorrow, so while watching football and listening to my Best of 2010 playlist on Itunes, I decided to break into the old beer cellar in an attempt to clear room for a new, non-liquid inhabitant. Long before I caught the wine bug, it was the complexities of micro-brewed beer that really turned my palate onto truly enjoying and tasting alcoholic beverages. Bell’s Kalamazoo brewery has been my favorite American producer for nearly a decade, so I decided to taste three vintages of their incredible barleywine, the Third Coast Old Ale. While I agree that unlike wine, beer is merely a recipe that should be able to be reproduced identically with successive vintages, bottle age as well as many other factors can impact its quality, and I was surprised at the subtle differences between the 2001, 2002 and 2003 editions of this beer after spending some time in my cellar. Not as surprisingly, my preferences corresponded directly to their age, in ascending order; as good as the 2003 was, the 2001 was on a completely different level, opening up into another dimension, especially as it warmed, while the 2002 seemed to straddle the line in between. Here are some more detailed notes:

2003: The most carbonated on the pour, with a small ring of head gracing the perimeter of the glass. Subtle aromas of yeast and subtle citrus behind the sweet toffee malt. Dark, dirty flavors of burnt caramel, banana, rum-raisin, dark Godiva chocolate and bitter Turkish coffee combine with bitter hops and a bit of heat through the long finish. Lingers with a burnt, bready note. IN A WORD: Aggressive.

2002: Pours with a medium amount of carbonation but hardly any head. Aromas of caramel and mocha bean dominate. Extremely creamy body of chocolate and coffee bean lead into well-balanced hops. Creamiest texture of the three, with a long, enjoyable finish of its rich, smooth malts. Impressively balanced throughout and lacking the burnt note that makes the 2003 seem a bit off; I seemed to drink this the most quickly of the three. IN A WORD: Streamlined.

2001: Pours headless, cidery and thick. Rich aromas of molasses, caramel and toffee. Incredibly soft and rich body, with a complex combination of anise, raisin-nut and black plum that evolves into notes of caramel, brown sugar and coffee bean flavors, leading into a soft backbone of hops. This has a dark citrus beginning that the other two do not, adding an extra element of complexity. Endless finish with hops and spice revealing themselves and picking up steam beneath the maltier elements. The best beer I have tasted in many years. IN A WORD: Complex.

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